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Jack Van Berg dies at 81

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Jack Van Berg, a Hall of Fame trainer who oversaw Alysheba to victories in the 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, died Wednesday. He was 81.

He died in a Little Rock, Arkansas, hospital, according to a spokeswoman for Oaklawn Park, where Van Berg had relocated his training base after leaving Southern California in 2013. No cause was given.

Van Berg ranks fourth all-time among trainers in North America, with 6,523 victories from 41,164 starts, according to Equibase. He had career purse earnings of $85,925,482.

In the Derby, Alysheba and jockey Chris McCarron were nearly knocked down at the top of the stretch by Bet Twice. Alysheba recovered and won despite having just one career victory before the Run for the Roses. Alysheba won the Preakness to set up a try for the Triple Crown but finished fourth in the Belmont.

As a 4-year-old, Alysheba won the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Classic and went on to earn the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year.

Van Berg saddled Gate Dancer to victory in the 1984 Preakness. That same year, he earned the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Trainer.

Van Berg was elected to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1985. His father, trainer Marion Van Berg, already was there, having entered in 1970.

From 1959-77, Van Berg was the leading trainer at Ak-Sar-Ben racetrack in Omaha, Nebraska. In 1976, he won a record 496 races and was the nation’s leading trainer, with $2,976,196 in purse earnings.

In 1987, Van Berg became the first trainer to win 5,000 races when he saddle Art’s Chandelle to victory at Arlington Park outside Chicago.

He trained in Southern California for 41 years until moving to Oaklawn in Hot Springs, Arkansas, after Hollywood Park closed in December 2013. Van Berg blamed the cities of Inglewood and Los Angeles and the state of California for the track’s closure.

“I just think it’s a pathetic thing,” he said at the time. “It’s ridiculous to let something like this that so many people love and thrive on close. They did everything they could to kill racing. I’ve had enough. I don’t like California racing anymore. I don’t like the way they run it and what they do.”

Van Berg mentored Hall of Famer Bill Mott, who began as an assistant to him.

Born June 7, 1936, in Columbus, Nebraska, John Charles Van Berg began training for his father in the 1960s. The elder Van Berg trained nearly 1,500 winners but was more successful as an owner, winning 4,691 races and $13,936,965. He was the first inductee of the Nebraska Racing Hall of Fame, and his son followed him.

Native River gets wire-to-wire win in Cheltenham Gold Cup

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CHELTENHAM, England (AP) Native River delivered an exhibition in front-running to outlast favorite Might Bite in a thrilling duel to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Britain’s most prestigious jumps race, on Friday.

Ridden by champion jockey Richard Johnson, 5-1 shot Native River took the lead right from the start and was never passed in the race over 3 miles and 2 1/2 furlongs in front of a crowd of 70,000.

After they jumped the last fence, Native River and Might Bite were neck and neck, but Johnson got a kick out of the Colin Tizzard-trained horse on the uphill finish and Native River won by 4 1/2 lengths – a year after finishing third in the race.

For Johnson, it was a second victory in the Gold Cup – 18 years after his first on Looks Like Trouble.

“It’s been a long 18 years,” Johnson said. “To be honest, I was a passenger.

“The more I asked from him, the better he jumped.”

Might Bite’s handler, Nicky Henderson, was looking to become the first trainer to capture the Cheltenham Festival’s three signature races in the same year – the Champion Hurdle, the Champion Chase, and the Gold Cup.

It was Might Bite’s first defeat over fences, and Henderson said the heavy going didn’t do the horse any favors – especially against a rival who is a past winner of the Welsh National and the Hennessy Gold Cup

“It was the right thing to track Native River because no other horse got into the race, he had to be in the right place,” Henderson said of the 4-1 favorite.

“On better ground, stamina wouldn’t have been an issue. But in that ground you have to work so much harder. The winner is a Welsh National winner and the reason I’ve never won that race is because I can’t find horses that go in that ground.”

Native River won his owners 369,822 pounds ($515,000).

Anibale Fly, a 33-1 shot, was third.

Jockey Ruby Walsh to miss rest of Cheltenham Festival

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CHELTENHAM, England (AP) Jockey Ruby Walsh will miss the remainder of the Cheltenham Festival after aggravating a leg injury when falling off his horse during the RSA Insurance Novices’ chase on Wednesday.

Walsh, the most successful jockey in the festival’s history with 52 wins, had only recently returned to competition after a four-month layoff due to a broken leg. He was taken to a hospital for X-rays and his sister Jennifer said in a statement that “unfortunately he has aggravated a recent leg injury and will see his consultant in Dublin next week for further assessment.”

Walsh had been set to ride Killultagh Vic in Friday’s Gold Cup.

On Wednesday’s second day of the festival, Altior extended his unbeaten record over jumps to 13 in the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase.

Altior had a slow start eventually powered seven lengths clear of the Willie Mullins-trained Min.

It was also a good day for trainer Gordon Elliott who took home three wins, headlined by Samcro in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle.

The 8-11 favorite beat Black Op by two and three-quarter lengths.